The trouble with most history books is that they are generally impersonal. They offer up the facts and then focus solely on the public figures that actually shaped events. What is omitted, save for the grainy black and white photos of yesterday, are the tales of the average people who experienced those moments or days now slowly morphing into ghostly images of a past all too soon forgotten.
Those of us who focus mainly on reading and reviewing pulp fiction sometimes need to be reminded of the times in which this unique brand of fiction was born. To better appreciate those exciting and colorful tales of escapist fancy, we should be aware that they were created during a time of national pain and suffering: the Great Depression. This is where Georgia Lowe’s powerful retelling of the Bonus March comes in.
Sadly, there have been too few novels set in this time of social upheaval, economic tragedy, and hopelessness. Not that there haven’t been many competent historical texts, several of which the author mentions in her own lists of references, nonetheless it takes a fiction writer to make history personal. John Steinbeck did it with his Grapes of Wrath and now, first-time novelist, Georgia Lowe achieves the same emotional impact with The Bonus.
This is not an easy book to read for any American who loves his or her country. Its honest depiction of the Hoover administration reveals the deplorable, cavalier, egotistical attitude of its chief participants from the President on down to his Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur.
In 1924, several years after the end of the War to End All Wars, America’s veterans were promised a bonus payment for their service. The country’s representatives spent the next five years debating on what form and amount this “bonus” would be in.
Then came the Wall Street crash of 1929, sending the economy into an unparalleled nosedive. Unemployment rose to 25%; banks collapsed like dominoes; and home foreclosures were rampant. On top of all this, Mother Nature delivered the second knockout punch in the form of a far reaching drought that devastated America’s central farmlands, turning abundant fields of wheat and corn into arid wastelands soon to be known as the Dust Bowl. The end result: Congress voted to defer the bonus until 1945.
Three years later, in the spring of 1932, thousands of veterans, feeling betrayed by their own government, began to organize throughout the country. As the news of their discontent and public gatherings spread, the idea of a united march on the capitol was born amidst wide popular approval.
Charismatic leaders among the various groups like the VFW arose, and by the start of summer, they were leading thousands of desperate veterans to Washington in every mode of travel possible from automobile caravans to train boxcars filled with weary travelers. Their one unifying goal: to force Congress into giving them their money—now.
We experience this historical pilgrimage through the eyes of several characters, including Will Hardy, a reporter for a Los Angeles tabloid, himself a veteran still enduring the effects of “shellshock;” and his lovely girlfriend, Bonnie. Bonnie, enjoying her life as a Hollywood extra, is naively unaware of the country’s ailing condition until she embarks on this odyssey with her girlfriend Myrna to rendezvous with their men. By the time she arrives in Washington, she and Will become eyewitnesses to the monumental injustice perpetrated by President Hoover and his cronies. Not only does Hoover publicly ignore the peaceful petitions and demonstrations of the Bonus marchers, in the end, he has them attacked and driven out by Army troops under the command of General MacArthur.
The Bonus is one of the finest historical novels I’ve ever read, and it left me emotionally drained. It is clearly a cautionary tale of what happens to a people when its elected officials allow themselves to become disassociated with their constituents.
It is a story of governmental betrayal at its worst and a timely warning considering our nation’s current situation. The Bonus is also a fine work of fiction with moving, believable characters that any reader will quickly recognize as each is driven to find a piece of the American promise.
We tip our pulp fedora to Georgia Lowe and we thank her deeply for reminding us all what happened that summer in 1932. It is up to each and every one of us to make sure it never happens again.